TERROR TIME’S Nadia Robertson provides some long-overdue appreciation to NIGHT OF THE SEAGULLS in celebration of its 40th anniversary.
Last week on July 26th, Amando de Ossorio’s tale of terror, NIGHT OF THE SEAGULLS celebrated its 40th anniversary. The fourth and final film of his BLIND DEAD series, it stands the test of time as one of the greatest Spanish horror films ever produced. NIGHT reboots the franchise, offering a surprisingly poetic take on the legend of the undead Templars, resulting in a surreal delight of a film that embraces the series’ strengths while offering up a new level of darkness, sensuality and atmosphere to the genre.
Henry Stein (Victor Petit), a recently transplanted doctor, and his wife Joan (María Kosty), enter a remote costal village in an attempt to provide unwanted medical care to a backwards Mediterranean community that has refused to accept the advances of the modern age. As the couple tries to settle in at the secretive seaside town, both are met with coldness from the locals that would rival the not-so-friendly folks at “The Slaughtered Lamb.” Teddy, an unsettling but harmless mentally handicapped man, stumbles into the doctor’s home with a PEEPING TOM moment that recalls the subtle graces of MANOS, THE HANDS OF FATE’s beloved Torgo, though realistically this scene is much better executed, made extra creepy by precise framing and stark shadows. Teddy becomes somewhat of an aid, while a native young woman, Lucy, shows the Steins some kindness and fills them in on some of the town’s bizarre superstitions. Yet it’s clear that Lucy and Teddy are both fearful of betraying the strict customs of their kin and the wrath that would most assuredly follow their blabbing to undesired outsiders.
In the dead of night, the violent screeching of seagulls – a cacophony that becomes especially unnerving once we learn its true meaning – awakes the Steins. The wary pair begins to witness strange ceremonies and disappearances in the area, and soon they discover the town harbors secrets of sacrificial rituals, bearing the burden of ancient evil and blood lust. Imagined from the real-life Knights Templar abolished in the early 14th century due to alliances with witchcraft, these long-dead medieval occultists plaguing the townspeople are rotting revenants sprung from a cliffside temple that have come to claim seven maiden souls on seven consecutive nights every seven years. Risen from their tombs by a supernatural immortality achieved by pre-mortem offerings of human hearts to their sea god statue, the Templar spirits emerge on horseback to collect the helpless young women who are led to the beach by mourning elders dressed in ominous black garb. When the undead are denied one of their promised sacrifices, the accursed gallop into town to punish those that stand against the powers of the darkness.
Ossorio’s BLIND DEAD series possesses a haunting quality that elicits atmospheric suspense within the context of a low budget foreign film that has surpassed its expectations. There’s something weirdly wonderful about ’70s Euro horror that evokes a raw sense of nightmare logic and while rudimentary at times in terms of polish, the BLIND DEAD films are ghostly and eerie in the best of ways. Of course there’s inevitably an element of sexualized gothic horror, so expect the typical exposed heaving breasts, but don’t be surprised when a spewing heart gets torn from them.
The gore, while obviously fake and cheap, is no less effective, and though used somewhat sparingly, sells the dark ideas of the screenplay. Shiver-inducing scenes where plate-sized crabs scuttle over the freshly slain, sand-stuffed bodies of young ladies who have met their gruesome end by the Templar’s sacrificial blade, are one of the highlights of NIGHT’s unnerving horror set pieces. As the creepy crawlies inch closer to their freshly dead snack, it sets the bar for Dario Argento’s rat attack scene in INFERNO, which would come out four years later, as well as Lucio Fulci’s tarantula facial chow down in THE BEYOND (1981).
The cannibalistic Knights of Templar, villainous constants throughout all four films, are inherently creepy with their sunken sea-rotted skull figures, but are not without their design flaws. Despite the budgetary shortcomings, the Templar’s eyeless sockets make for a successfully disturbing visage, and the paralysis they cast upon their prey plays into the nightmare logic so delightfully used in much of the early European horror films. The mesmerizing slo-mo imagery of cloaked, ghastly figures riding in on demonic horses is a gem of the series, and is once again used well in this film. These horsemen of the sea are perhaps an inspired result of a silent horror precedent, THE PHANTOM CARRIAGE (1921), where shrouded ghouls on horseback haunt the screen to a similar commanding effect. Basically, the Knights of Templar, are mummified, vampiric, horse riding zombies, so there’s pretty much everything to love rolled up into one deadly cavalry.
The heavy emphasis on mood carries the film through its flaws. The light design is often engineered to visually recall the stylized but grounded aesthetic of silent horror, and the sound design sets an amplified tone of uneasiness. The screaming seagulls, combined with Anton Garcia Abril’s simple but unsettling soundtrack, greatly adds to the moodiness, and the guttural Gregorian chants conjure feelings of echoing dread. Due to their sightlessness, the Templar are sound sensitive, which leads them in the direction of struggling victims, so desperate screams become all the more foreboding as the Templar hone in on their target. The sounds of their clanking swords reverberate in an otherworldly sound effect that’s reminiscent to the synth-heavy pangs in the famous scene in A CLOCKWORK ORANGE where Alex is beaten by former droogs turned policeman. The clambering horse hooves galloping to deliver death is a familiar sound that the viewer is well versed in at this point in the horror franchise, but it is no less scary when used here. One wonders if Abril’s theme song for this film was influenced by the unnerving end score in George A. Romero’s NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968), and it is interesting that like Romero’s frightened human protagonists, the characters in NIGHT OF THE SEAGULLS also board themselves up in a house as a means of protection against their zombified attackers.
For those who are firmly accustomed to the flashy technology and frequent surprise scare pacing of modern day horror films, the European low budget charm of NIGHT OF THE SEAGULLS may be lost amongst more conditioned moviegoers used to current American horror fare. It’s unarguably a little sloppy at times in its use of some recycled footage and suffers from low production value constraints that lead to hokey artistic decisions, but the series’ influence on future cinema can be found amongst some of the greatest directors of the genre. John Carpenter’s THE FOG comes to mind as one possible successor to the concept of cursed men coming back to wreak havoc on sleepy seaside towns. The film shows a direct influence on Guillermo Del Toro and modern Spanish horror with its use of surreal imagery and quiet but suffocating tension.
Though NIGHT OF THE SEAGULLS is more or less a reboot of its lesser quality precursor film, THE GHOST GALLEON, and the first BLIND DEAD film, THE TOMBS OF THE BLIND DEAD takes the crown as the strongest of the series (with a shockingly bleak ending too), NIGHT still holds its own as an intimidating presence amongst a vastly underrated set of films that frankly more people should be talking about. Aside from the horror aspect, the four films highlight the doomed fate of those self-enslaved by old customs and casts a warning against submission to outdated folklore. Unlike the first two films in the BLIND DEAD series, the latter two suffer from international dubs produced by not the most English savvy translators. The first two films in the series show heavy variances between the original and English dubbed versions, which includes plenty of additional footage, multiple music cue cuts and the far superior US commissioned dub work.
The consistently eerie imagery of NIGHT OF THE SEAGULLS and THE BLIND DEAD series still leaves its mark on the open minds of horror aficionados 40 year later, and the films should be kept alive to be enjoyed for generations to come.
Night of the Seagulls, Theatrical Trailer: